Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D / * (PG)

Rebecca Wilson: Rowan Blanchard
Cecil Wilson: Mason Cook
Marissa Wilson: Jessica Alba
Wilbur Wilson: Joel McHale
Danger D’Amo: Jeremy Piven
Carmen Cortez: Alexa Vega
Juni Cortez: Daryl Sabara
Argonaut (voice): Ricky Gervais

Dimension Films presents a film directed and written by Robert Rodriguez. Running time: 89 min. Rated PG (for mild action and rude humor).

The “Spy Kids” franchise has become such a disappointment that it’s hard for me to find a place to start fuming my exasperation over it. Perhaps I’m just not the intended audience. Clearly the kids don’t care if the filmmaking is good or not. It’s got kids who are spies in it. They play with ridiculous gadgets that make no logical sense. They engage in gimmicks involving the areas of life that kids know, like food, toys, play fighting, and bodily noises. Why wouldn’t kids like it? Why must I be subjected to it in a movie theater when I can just watch my kids act like idiots at home? At least then it’s my kids I’m watching.

As you may recall from the original “Spy Kids”, the premise here is that two child siblings discover that their parents are spies and must go into action as spies themselves to save their parents from an evil madman. Well, it’s been ten years since that fairly inventive movie. Those kids are all grown up now, and hardly qualify as kids anymore. So, with “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World” we get two new kids to become spy kids.

The premise is pretty much the same. This time the spy is the stepmother, whom young Rebecca (Rowan Blanchard, “The Backup Plan”) refuses to warm up to. Her brother Cecil (Mason Cook) is more understanding that their stepmother isn’t trying to replace their mother. We’re introduced to the stepmom, Marissa (Jessica Alba, “Little Fockers”), in an opening action sequence that is supposed to be funny because she also happens to be nine months pregnant. Another twist is that their father, Wilbur (Joel McHale, “Community”), is a reality TV host who creates a show called “Spy Hunter”, where he exposes real life spies on camera.

Practically giving birth on the job, Marissa retires to be a full-time mother until a year later when her arch nemesis, The Timekeeper, resurfaces and exposes her as a spy to her stepchildren during an attack on the Wilson household. This greatly elevates Marissa in the minds of Cecil and Rebecca. However, Marissa’s superior, Danger D’Amo (Jeremy Piven, “Entourage”) remands the children to protective custody in the OSS headquarters. Of course, the children won’t sit idly by despite the room full of candy in which they’ve been deposited. Oh, and they have a robot dog with the voice of Ricky Gervais (“Ghost Town”), who also acts as the narrator. Also, Carmen (Alexa Vega) and Juni (Daryl Sabara), the original spy kids, show up to offer some backup.

The 4th “Spy Kids” plays like some sort of Saturday programming for the Disney kids network, with its heroes as interested in eating candy as they are in spying. The adults are presented as more buffoonish than the children, and the villain doesn’t seem to pose much of a real threat since his scheme is about as well planned as the commercial programming for kids shows. Someone needs to tell the commercial programmers for kids’ networks that mothers don’t do all the cleaning anymore, nor do parents bother watching what their kids see on television. So, there’s no need to advertize Mr. Clean on Saturday mornings anymore. Keep it on the Lifetime channel.

I apologize for veering off course there, but criticizing children’s television programming is more interesting than concentrating on just how terrible “Spy Kids 4” is. What’s worse is that like the terrible “Spy Kids 3”, the 4th one is also in 3D. So while sitting through some terrible villain monologue, we also have to deal with writer/director/producer/composer/photographer Robert Rodriguez (“Desperado”) pointing and throwing objects at the camera every two minutes to remind us that this is a different kind of theatrical experience. It really isn’t all that different anymore, since every other movie out there is doing this now.

To make the production even more obnoxious, Rodriguez is also forcing the exhibitors to hand out scratch and sniff cards to the audience members to add a fourth dimension to the movie. Aroma isn’t actually another dimension, is it? Never mind. There are numbers on the cards that correspond with numbers that are flashed on the screen. Viewers are supposed to scratch the numbers on the card when the same number appears on screen to smell what the characters smell. Several of these smells are indistinguishable from each other and a few involve flatulence, so, I can only recommend that you don’t bother with the 4D element.

I admired the first “Spy Kids” movie for its willingness to veer into absurdity in its attempt to replicate the imaginations of children. Unfortunately, the series has fallen deeper into the senselessness and unstructured thinking of infantile storytelling as it’s continued. While the series began with absurdity, it quickly fell into stupidity, and now, I just wish it would go away.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Conan the Barbarian / **½ (R)

Conan: Jason Momoa
Tamara: Rachel Nichols
Khalar Zym: Stephen Lang
Marique: Rose McGowan
Artus: Nonso Anozie
Ela-Shan: Saïd Taghmaoui
Young Conan: Leo Howard
Corin: Ron Perlman

Lionsgate and Millennium Films present a movie directed by Marcus Nispel. Written by Thomas Dean Donnelly & Joshua Oppenheimer and Sean Hood. Based on the character created by Robert E. Howard. Running time: 112 min. Rated R (for strong bloody violence, some sexuality and nudity).

“What is best in life?”
“To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”
                        —“Conan the Barbarian”, 1982.

Before sitting down to write this review, I tried to find a good definition of the ‘fantasy’ genre. I couldn’t find one that satisfied me.  They all singled out the fact that fantasies were stories that couldn’t happen in real life, often involving magic or exotic creatures. None of them mentioned the sense of awe brought about by seeing a human having to navigate such a landscape. None spoke of the human lessons found in such genre material.

Fantasy is probably the most basic and direct of the genres to tackle the issues of the human condition. Robert E. Howard’s creation, Conan, is perhaps the ultimate male adolescent fantasy. His parents die when he’s a child, so he doesn’t have them to hold him back in that leap from child to man. He is a muscle bound warrior with a reputation of being the fiercest fighter in the land. He steals. He has sex. He vanquishes his foes. His ‘best in life’ characteristics from the original movie sums up his drive in life. There is not a fan of fantasy filmmaking who was an adolescent at the time of that movie’s release who does not know this line in their most buried core.

The reboot of “Conan the Barbarian”, dubbed with the same title, is a Conan fantasy. It has swords and sorcery. It has evil men with scarred faces. It has a sexy witch and an even sexier virgin. It has revenge and schemes of world domination. It has warriors birthed from the sand. And, it has barrels and barrels of blood.

It also has the muscle bound Jason Momoa (“Stargate: Atlantis”), who—dare I say—makes an even better Conan than Arnold Schwarzenegger did. He’s a better actor and you can understand him. This means Conan can express himself a little better in this movie, although he still prefers to let his steel do the talking.

Even before we get the new Conan, we’re treated to an extended introduction of Conan as a child. Birthed by his mother as she died of fatal wounds on a battlefield, young Conan (Leo Howard, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”) is raised by his father, Corin (Ron Perlman, “Hellboy”) in the warrior tradition of his barbarian clan. We see that Conan, at the age of 12, is already a fierce warrior, capable of taking down four savage adults from a rival clan. Why is it that nameless enemy soldiers in a fantasy movie must forever more make growling noises like the orcs in “The Lord of the Rings”? These are humans. I don’t understand why they growl like monsters.

Anyway, the extended origin sequence for young Conan establishes the bloody brutality of Conan’s world. His new origin doesn’t strike me as quite as tragic as it was in the 1982 version, but it defines Conan’s world in rigid terms and works to define the brutal hero.

As an adult, Conan is at times crass, is always single-minded, but he works as a hero in the brutal world he inhabits. He learns the man responsible for his father’s death, Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang, “Avatar”) will be in a certain area of the continent of Hyboria, and journeys there to exact his revenge. Zym is after a woman of a pure bloodline. This woman is Tamara (Rachel Nichols, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”), whom Conan falls into protection of almost by random luck. As is necessary, their personalities clash, but they will eventually share a bed.

Zym needs Tamara’s pure blood so he and his witch daughter, Marique (Rose McGowan, “Planet Terror”), can bring his slain wife back to life and rule the world as gods. All of this is preposterous, yes; but it is exactly the kind of visceral fantasy storyline that a hero of Conan’s nature demands. I liked that the story, in nature, matches other Conan stories I know, yet is original to this particular movie. In the right hands, this story could’ve had the makings of an excellent Conan adventure.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe this story was placed in the right hands. Director Marcus Nispel is far too focused on the action elements, while displaying little, if any knowledge, of the genre elements required. Nispel has already helmed two other reboots before this one. They were the remakes of the horror classics “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Friday the 13th”. Both movies failed to realize the success of the originals. Nispel shows no understanding of the thematic element involved in genre filmmaking.

Every shot in this new “Conan” seems to exist to get to the next slice of the sword, the next creature jumping in the hero’s face. There is no sense of a thematic arc. The movie never stops to look at where it is. Production designer Chris August (“War”) creates a stunning world for these characters to inhabit, yet Nispel’s camera never stops for a moment to consider it. The movie never slows down. The characters never seem to understand their place in the scope of their own universe, and thus any theme that could be explored by this fantasy is lost.

Conan fans probably won’t find too much to criticize in this new version of a classic literary character, but the movie never finds its driving force. As far as Nispel is concerned, the foundation of this movie is a big muscle-bound man slicing his sword through his enemies. That may be what Conan is on the surface, but even the basest of fantasies is built upon more than just swords and sorcery. If Conan had been directed by an auteur daring enough to slow things down and immerse his audience in Conan’s fantasy world, this could’ve been an even better film than the original. As it is, the new “Conan the Barbarian” is a pale shadow of the original.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Aug. 19-25

Super (2011) ***
Director/Writer: James Gunn
Starring: Rainn Wilson, Ellen Page, Kevin Bacon, Liv Tyler, Michael Rooker, Andre Royo, Gregg Henry, Nathan Fillion

The everyday man superhero movie “Super” presents a problem and highlights a disturbing trend in a certain subgenre of these costumed vigilante movies. I’ll start off by saying I liked “Super”, but it does concern me.

The story follows Frank, a pathetic man played by Rainn Wilson from “The Office”. Frank’s wife leaves him for a drug dealer who is supplying her. This inspires Frank to invent a superhero alter ego, who fights crime with a pipe wrench. Eventually, he picks up a sidekick played by an overenthusiastic Ellen Page.

What is disturbing is the nature of Frank’s vigilante justice, which is over the top and ultra-violent. His justice might be seen as perfect for the drug dealer, but may be excessive when he pummels a guy and his girlfriend in the head with his wrench for cutting in line at a movie theater.

The inappropriately violent nature of the vigilante here brings to mind the movie “Kick-Ass”, which imagined an 11-year-old girl blowing people away point blank with a gun. I think I liked “Kick-Ass” too, but a second viewing (which I don’t plan) might swing me in the opposing direction. “Kick-Ass” really glorifies its violence in a way the might seem easier to take for some, but really makes its depictions even more disturbing.

“Super” doesn’t glorify it’s violent much, but just in the depiction of it I had to wonder, if we’re not supposed to admire what we’re seeing, then what are we supposed to think about it? Certainly it is a criticism of certain aspects in our society that we tout as sort of magical forms of justice, like certain forms of faith and superhero worship. Frank does have a conscience and tries to only punish bad men. Considering the “happy” ending, it seems to be trying to say that Frank was right in the end; but his actions throughout don’t really support that conclusion, especially considering his sidekick. I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to think about this movie.

Limitless (2011) ***
Director: Neil Burger
Writers: Leslie Dixon, Alan Glynn (novel “The Dark Fields”)
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Abbie Cornish, Robert DeNiro, Andrew Howard, Anna Friel, Tomas Arana

When my wife and I watch movies together, we’re usually a little freer with our viewing etiquette than we might be with others. I taught her a bad habit of grunting whenever something comes up that surprises us. I’m also a little too liberal with allowing myself to voice my opinion of the movie while we’re watching it.

During our screening of “Limitless” there seemed to be less of our poor audience behavior than normal, although much of our grunting is done so unconsciously that we don’t even notice it anymore. There was almost no running commentary by myself until the very end of the movie when I uttered “Well, if he’s so smart, shouldn’t he have seen that coming?” Within seconds the movie proved that it was already ahead of me with its final developments.

Essentially, this movie about a man who discovers a drug that allows him to access the 80 percent of our brain they say we don’t use kept our interest extremely well and offered little that we could criticize or take apart at the time of viewing. That’s not to say this is a great movie by any stretch, but it is entertaining and will surprise you. You can’t really ask for much more in a thriller.

Western of the Week

13 Assassins (2011) ****
Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Daisuke Tengan, Kaneo Ikegami (based on a screenplay by)
Starring: Kôji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada, Yûsuki Iseya, Gorô Inagaki, Masachika Ichimura, Hiroki Matsukata, Ikki Sawamura, Arata Furuta, Tsuyoshi Ihara, Masakata Kubota, Sôsuke Takaoka, Seiji Rokkaku, Yûma Ishigaki, Kôen Kondô

Huh? Western of the Week?! But, this is a samurai movie, you say? Indeed it is. Japanese filmmakers have never been shy about admitting the influence of the American Western on their own Samurai genre. Every time I watch a Samurai film, I can’t help but thinking about my favorite westerns.

“13 Assassins”, like many recent Samurai films, takes place in the final days of the Shogun feudal governments of Japan, just before the current Meiji government was developed. Many of these movies tackle the issues of a dying breed, much like Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning western “Unforgiven”.

“13 Assassins”, however, plays nothing like such westerns, which tend to be slow and contemplative. “13 Assassins” is more like the action western “Silverado” on steroids. Director Takashi Miike arms his production with gallons and gallons of blood. He might’ve used a whole tanker full.

Despite it’s focus on action, “13 Assassins” is also steeped in politics. Much like the blood, the politics overflow in this plot with the characters immersed in the politics of politics, even though the samurai only serve the politicians. To describe the plot might confuse readers, which is unnecessary when all you really need to know is that 13 samurai assassins are assembled to murder a very bad man who is about to become very powerful. Needless to say, the bad man has a lot of protection, hence the vast quantities of blood.

Sports Night, Season 1 (1998-99) ***½
Creator: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Josh Charles, Peter Krause, Felicity Huffman, Josh Malina, Sabrina Lloyd, Robert Guillaume

Before “The West Wing” and the grossly underrated “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin created his first underrated television program about a ESPN style sports highlight show called “Sports Night”. The show displays Sorkin’s signature snappy dialogue and intellectuals who are smarter than any real people, but are also a hell of a lot more entertaining.

Coming off his Oscar winning adapted screenplay for “The Social Network”, Sorkin’s smart dialogue driven dramedy style seems to be back in vogue, so it’s a perfect time to check out this once hidden gem of a television show. You can’t elp but like his characters, who are so fun to be around but all have their own individual flaws. The show was also an introduction to then unknown actors Peter Krause and Felicity Huffman, who both star in hit television shows today. The show also introduced some of Sorkin’s revolving company that would later make the rounds in “The West Wing” and “Studio 60”.

There are some rough spots still showing in Sorkin’s style, mostly due to the way his more serious approach to comedy clashed with television sitcom practices of the late 1990s. There is a barely audible laugh track that may have been a precursor to the eventual elimination of the laugh track in some of the aught’s best sitcom programming. This material really couldn’t sustain a laugh track because it treads too often in drama instead of slapstick. Sometimes the reaching for laughs clashes with the reaching for depth here. But, for the most part, “Sports Night” is an example of the best television can offer an audience willing to dispose of labels and clichés.

Take Me Home Tonight (2011) **½
Director: Michael Dowse
Writers: Jackie Filgo, Jeff Filgo, Topher Grace, Gordon Kaywin
Starring: Topher Grace, Dan Folger, Teresa Palmer, Anna Farris, Chris Pratt, Michael Biehn

“Take Me Home Tonight” is a valuable movie if only as a frame to hang all the one hit wonders of its 80’s music soundtrack on. If you grew up in the 80’s, you can’t watch this movie without finding yourself humming along to some of the forgotten gems that made up the soundtrack of your youth. For that reason alone, I would suspect many people will enjoy this movie.

The interesting thing is that the movie itself isn’t really all that bad. It’s merely homage to 80’s raunch comedies in which young adults try to recapture the glory of their high school days by getting caught up in all the drama and social categorizing of that torturous period in life. It doesn’t add much to this highly specialized subgenre, but it doesn’t get it wrong either.

The main storyline involves Topher Grace, who after  “That 70’s Show”, apparently wanted to relive the high school days of another decade, one in which he was at least alive if not actually attended high school. Grace has graduated from MIT, but can’t seem to find any joy in the prospect of settling into a career for the rest of his life, so he’s living at home and working in a video store. When his high school crush walks into his work one day, he’s inspired to make good on all his pining from high school.

As these comedies tend to go, all the characters eventually end up at a big party where great quantities of alcohol and drugs are consumed and many secrets that most involved would want to remain so are revealed. His sister’s storyline seemed a little less developed and tacked on for extra content purposes. Despite Anna Ferris’s perky attempts to elevate her role as the sister, her story just doesn’t ring as universal as the rest of the movie and interrupts the momentum of everything else.

I can’t get whole-heartedly behind this movie, however much the soundtrack inspires me to. It seems a little unnecessary today for anything beyond nostalgic purposes.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes / *** (PG-13)

Will Rodman: James Franco
Caroline Aranha: Freida Pinto
Charles Rodman: John Lithgow
John Landon: Brian Cox
Dodge Landon: Tom Felton
Steven Jacobs: David Oyelowo
Caesar (motion capture performance): Andy Serkis

Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Rupert Wyatt. Written by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver. Suggested by the novel “La planète des singes” by Pierre Boulle. Running time: 105 min. Rated PG-13 (for violence, terror, some sexuality, and brief strong language).

“The Planet of the Apes” is a franchise that has a lot of legacy to live up to. The new reboot of the franchise, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, lives up to that legacy by wiping most of the slate clean, ala “Star Trek”, while still retaining a measured amount of referencing to show reverence toward its origins.

We meet a San Francisco scientist named Will Rodman (James Franco, “127 Hours”). Rodman is tasked with finding a cure to Alzheimer’s disease. Working with simians, he’s developed a virus that attacks the cells infected by the disease and rebuilds them. The ape test subjects display greater intelligence than prior to their injections with the virus. Rodman thinks the serum is ready for human trials. After seeing his results, Rodman’s boss, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo, “The Last King of Scotland”), wants to sell it to the board of directors. Unfortunately, an accident in the lab brings the whole operation crashing down. Rodman is faced with having to put down all of his test subjects.

As will happen with such plots, good intentions start a string of events that will change the fate of the world. One of Rodman’s test subjects gave birth just before the incident. Rodman can’t bring himself to put the baby chimp down, so he takes him home. Once home, we learn the motivation behind Rodman’s search for a cure. His dad (John Lithgow, “Dexter”) is dying from the disease. Once Rodman realizes that the baby ape has had the effects of his virus passed down to it and is growing more intelligent as it ages, he decides to try the serum on his father.

I could continue to give plot details here as they are quite intriguing, but that’s part of why you should go see this movie. Suffice it to say, the ape, named Caesar by Rodman’s father, becomes part of the family. When situations arise that suggest Caesar might be a danger, he is remanded to an ape facility where he uses his advanced intelligence to first appropriate the rule of the facility apes from another, bigger ape. Then he leads an ape uprising against his human wardens and the entire city.

This origin reboot story is much better conceived and executed by director Rupert Wyatt and his screenwriters than the prequels to the original series, “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” and “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes”. The motion capture technology used to create performances by plausible looking apes helps to sell the story here. Andy Serkis, the leading expert of performance capture for his performance creations of Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” and the giant ape in “King Kong”, provides the lead simian performance. Wyatt focuses a great amount of attention on the eyes, which are the windows into Caesar’s soul.

The heavy emphasis on social commentary that was the foundation of the series’ previous origin story isn’t as strongly presented here. The thematic element leans more toward the folly of man trying to play God. Even that theme is not as heavily emphasized as plot is here. The result is a strange amalgam of protagonists and antagonists. In some ways the movie favors man and in some ways the apes. Both Rodman and Caesar are presented as protagonists, but because of their different species they end up on opposite sides of the conflict.

There are many CGI action scenes near the end of the movie. These involve the apes fighting their way out of the city as the men try to get them under control. It’s a little hard to gage just how to feel about this conflict because most of the people the apes are fighting never did anything to them, but the film makes a good case for how these intelligent apes with personalities of their own have been abused by man in general and just want to find their own place in this world. It raises questions of perspective, but there is really no right and wrong precedent here.

Some of the joys of the movie are the subtle (and some not so subtle) references to the original “Planet of the Apes” story. I think the purpose of this movie is really to wipe the slate clean and begin the whole series again. But, the filmmakers understand that as a franchise they do have some obligation to the original material. There’s a nice subtle reference in one scene where Caesar is constructing a 3D Statue of Liberty puzzle. There are also background news stories about a manned spacecraft that is lost. These are possibly the astronauts that will eventually find themselves trapped on the “Planet of the Apes” of the future. The abusive caretaker at the apes facility played by Tom Felton (of the “Harry Potter” films) has some more direct references with a couple of lines. I liked his use of “It’s a mad house, a mad house!” but “Get your hands off me, you damn dirty ape!” was a little over the top.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” makes for an exciting and intelligent re-introduction to the “Planet of the Apes” franchise. Like “Star Trek”, it does a good job of starting from scratch without ignoring everything that has come before. It’s also like “Star Trek” in that it runs a little light on the science fiction thematic material that helped make the original so strong. Overall however, there is little to complain about in this new vision of this cherished film property. A reboot made this well provides good entertainment with the promise of even better things to come.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

2011 The Summer of Raunch

I’m usually pretty strict about my format with this blog. Most of what I post here is original material pertaining to specific films or original essays about movies. I rarely post links to other sites or articles. I am forgoing this policy to post a link to an article I recently participated in about the state of R-rated raunchy comedies. I intend to post my own commentary on this subject that will include the material I contributed to this article. Written by Michael Ventre, this piece was recently posted on MSNBC.com

Friday, August 19, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Aug. 12-18

You Again (2010) *½
Director: Andy Fickman
Writer: Moe Jelline
Starring: Kristen Bell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sigourney Weaver, Odette Yustman, Victor Garber, Jimmy Wolk, Betty White, Kristin Chenoweth, Billy Unger, Kyle Bornheimer, Sean Wing

Now, this has nothing to do with any sort of crush I might have on Kristen Bell or anything, but it seems to me that Bell consistently outshines the movies she’s in. It’s funny how although she rose to fame on one of the most smartly written television shows of the aughts, she doesn’t seem to find herself in very many smartly written movies.

Example: At the beginning of the movie “You Again”, where she plays a PR woman who wants to break up her brother’s wedding because his fiancée was her arch nemesis in high school, she learns of this news while on a plane to attend the wedding. I’m willing to forgive that Hollywood seems to think that weddings are events that can actually happen in just a couple of days. No, I’m sorry. That’s a lie. I’m not willing to accept that. My point is, however, when you place the heroine on an airplane in a slapstick comedy, is it a necessity that she will have to be reprimanded by an air marshal? That happens here, as Hollywood feels it must, but screenwriter Moe Jelline can’t seem to come up with a good reason for it.

Bell learns the news that her brother is marrying her high school tormentor; and although she’s still on the phone, she can no longer fight the urge to stand up and yell into the phone. Really? She has to stand up with the phone cord still attached to the middle seat in the row. Bell, for any talent she might have, can’t make it look physically plausible that such an action is natural in any sense. That’s not her fault. It’s because it isn’t. The only reason she’s standing up is to make a scene and draw the air marshal’s ire. Heck, Jelline can’t even hide the fact that the only reason she learns the news at this point, rather than before she leaves Los Angeles, is so she can flirt with disaster. This is really bad stuff.

As for Bell outshining the material. That she does with a natural and fluctuating sunny disposition, something the rest of the cast, including comedy veterans Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver, fail at. It seems like everyone in this movie is smiling too much. I don’t mean at inappropriate times, but when they do it, the smiles seem to be too big, too happy, even in a comedy.

I didn’t expect “You Again” to be a great movie, but with such a trio of comedic actresses and Betty White offering some supporting help, this all should’ve been much funnier. I can’t blame these performers that have proven themselves over and over throughout the years. But, perhaps they all need to have a serious sit down with their respective agents.

Honeymoon for One (2011) **
Director: Kevin Connor
Writer: Rick Suvalle
Starring: Nicollette Sheridan, Greg Wise, Patrick Baladi, Katie Bannon

I’m really not used to watching made for TV movies. The pacing is different than theatrical releases. The new romantic comedy that premiered on Hallmark Channel Saturday, “Honeymoon For One”, seems a little slow when compared to theatrical movies of the same nature. I suppose this is a result of having to deal with commercials and a locked running time.

In terms of the romantic comedy formula, the movie hits all its marks. The story involves an L.A. ad executive who catches her fiancée cheating on her days before their wedding. She goes on their planned Ireland honeymoon anyway and meets a local man who doesn’t fit her big city lifestyle. Naturally, the two opposites fall in love. I liked the way screenwriter Rick Suvalle worked in a corporate subplot about a real estate deal between her fiancée and some investors interested in the property where they were supposed to honeymoon.

I wish, however, that director Kevin Connor had highlighted the comedy more. There are some good moments between the budding lovers and with the Irishman’s daughter that kind of get run over by the basic point and shoot direction. There are even more missed moments concerning the woman’s personal assistant. The film’s score, by Ray Harman, tries too hard to sell the romance and makes little attempt to lighten the mood for the comedic moments. The direction seems pitched at the same level throughout the movie. Some variant pacing could’ve pushed the stronger comedic moments and slowed down for the more dramatic scenes.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010) ***
Directors: Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg
Starring: Joan Rivers, Melissa Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Jocelyn Pickett, Billy Sammeth

Here’s what I like about Joan Rivers. In the still I’ve used from the movie above, she seems to be having one of those typical documentary exposé moments where we see the lonely artist in contemplation of everything that she’s become. The look on her face suggests a hard life that seems betrayed by the luxury car she’s in and the fur coat she’s wearing. Moments after this shot in the film Rivers leans over to the other passenger in the seat next to her and says, “Get out of my shot. This is supposed to be me alone, all by myself.”

She’s joking, because she knows just how pretentious the shot must look. She knows exactly what she’s doing. Her life hasn’t been hard. It’s exactly what she made it. That’s the very type of celebrity she is. She has no illusions of herself, no matter how many illusions the world has about her. She’s a workaholic at the age of 75 (now 78.)

In this documentary that looks at a year in the life of the comedienne, there are some clips from her stand up act. As an “old woman” (her words), her bits are filled with foul language, graphic talk about sex, and constant criticism of the people who are closest to her and provide her with love. This isn’t any grandmother I remember; yet after watching her here, I think she’s a good one. Her biggest problem is that she won’t stop. That’s also what makes her both fascinating and underappreciated by the public at large.

Unknown (2011) ***
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writers: Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell, Didier Van Caulwelert (novel “Out of My Head”)
Starring: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Sebastian Koch

Liam Neeson has a very unique set of skills. It’s just that this time, he doesn’t know it. It’s unknown to him. Huh? Get it? Did you see “Taken”?

Well, anyway, it doesn’t really matter. Here’s another movie with Liam Neeson kicking ass, and it actually makes you desire to see more movies of Liam Neeson kicking ass. In my full-length review of “Taken” I talked about what a great and unlikely action star Neeson is because he doesn’t seem like an action star. Here the filmmakers use that misconception to the story’s advantage with the secret I’ll try not to discuss anymore.

What would you do if you woke from a coma to be told that all of the things you remember about your life are wrong? I doubt I would behave as spectacularly as Liam Neeson does in this film, but I’d really like to imagine I would. Yeah! Kick ass! Mess ‘em up! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

My Dog Tulip (2010) ****
Directors: Paul Fierlinger, Sandra Fierlinger
Writers: Paul Fierlinger, Sandra Fierlinger, J. R. Akerley (book)
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Lynn Redgrave, Isabella Rossellini, Brian Murray

Any dog lover knows that the animated memoir “My Dog Tulip” is going to be a down to earth approach to dogs because within the first fifteen minutes of its running time the narrator/author is discussing bowel movements. You see with a dog, the basic needs come first; and a true dog lover understands that before anything you much deal with the bodily waste.

Despite the frequent discussion of such bodily functions in “My Dog Tulip”, this is one of the truly endearing animations of the ages. The hand drawn art may seem primitive to some, but it perfectly displays the memoir nature of this story about an old man who, in his lifelong search for the perfect companion, finally finds true love with man’s best friend. Tulip is not your typical cute animated dog. She’s real. She misbehaves. She’s uncontrollable. She tries to dictate the old man’s life until he understands that a dog’s psyche is a subservient one, desiring to please, unlike most people.

You won’t find some grand adventure here. This is a memoir painted with love about nothing other than companionship. Despite the fact that just about every sentence of the script speaks of Tulip, it’s really more about the old man and how he found everything he needed in life in a place he never expected. This is the great discovery of just about every pet lover.

Western of the Week

Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann (1982) *
Director: William Dear
Writers: William Dear, Michael Nesmith
Starring: Fred Ward, Belinda Bauer, Peter Coyote, Richard Mauser, Tracey Walter, Ed Lauter, L.Q. Jones, Chris Mulkey

So I’m scrolling through the westerns on Netflix Instant looking for this week’s Western of the Week and I see the 1982 sci-fi D-grade flick “Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann”. This brings so many questions too my head. First, a tune, “One of these things is not like the other…” Second, wasn’t Lynn Swann still playing football in 1982? Third, didn’t they call this one “Back to the Future III” later on in the decade?

My interest peaked. I decided, what the hell! Yes, sometimes that’s a statement, not a question. I actually remember “Timerider” from the early days of HBO, when they played it incessantly. It was a cheap property and it was rated PG. At that time, HBO could only play R-rated movies in primetime or late night. I recalled the first twelve minutes of the movie quite vividly. I also remembered the last couple of minutes very well. The middle of the film was all new to me. This tells me that even my 10-year-old mind could only handle watching the first twelve minutes of this crap. I’m guessing my memory of the last few minutes had to do with tuning in a couple minutes early to catch the following program.

The plot involves a motorcyclist competing in the Baja 1000 who is accidentally sent back through time to the old west. Hence, the Western label. The western characters here are broadly drawn, with a villain that is pretty poorly portrayed by Peter Coyote. There isn’t much point to this exercise of placing a motorcyclist in the old west, and the story of the outlaws trying to get their hands on that “machine he rides like a horse” is pretty flimsy. It is nice to see Coyote get propeller chopped right out of his boots at the end, however.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 / ***½ (PG-13)

Harry Potter: Daniel Radcliffe
Hermione Granger: Emma Watson
Ron Weasley: Rupert Grint
Lord Voldemort: Ralph Fiennes
Professor Severus Snape: Alan Rickman
Neville Longbottom: Matthew Lewis
Draco Malfoy: Tom Felton
Albus Dumbledore: Michael Gambon
Luna Lovegood: Evanna Lynch
Griphook/Professor Filius Flitwick: Warwick Davis
Lucius Malfoy: Jason Isaacs
Bellatrix Lestrange: Helena Bonham Carter
Professor Minerva McGonagall: Maggie Smith
Ginny Weasley: Bonnie Wright

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by David Yates. Written by Steve Kloves. Based on the novel by J.K. Rowling. Running time: 130 min. Rated PG-13 (for some sequences of intense action violence and frightening images).

Well, I guess that’s it then, the end of the most successful film franchise in history. It’s a little hard to come to terms with. If anything can be said about the final installment, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2”, it’s that the filmmakers do a fine job coming to terms with the end of their precious commodity. It’s handled with care and love, and that shows in just about every frame of one of the most thrilling episodes of the series. I’m at a loss as to what to say for a closing on the series, so I’ll revert to the critical standby of synopsizing and see where that leads me.

As expected, Part 2 of Harry’s seventh year starts right where Part 1 left off. Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, “Schindler’s List”) has taken the Elder Wand, the most powerful wizarding wand in the world, from Dumbledore’s crypt. Harry, Ron and Hermione mourn the sacrifice of Doby, the Free Elf.  Soon, the heroic trio is back on the search for Voldemort’s horcruxes to give them a leg up in defeating the dark lord.

At this point, it is impossible to discuss this series for those who might not be familiar with it. That fact is reflected in this film’s presentation as well. There are no introductory passages to this ultimate episode, no explanations of what a horcrux is, no explanation of who is who. If you don’t know yet, you’re going to have to go back to find out. That’s how it should be, because there are too many loose ends to tie up to waste time with exposition.

For the first time in the series, the events depicted are almost completely filled with action sequences. While Part 1 of this final chapter mostly contained dialogue and dread, Part 2 consists of wall-to-wall action and yet still finds profound moments of insight and contemplation. The dread is still a palpable element of the story, but the heroes make more discernable headway this time. Will it be enough? Will it be in time to save Hogwarts from destruction?

Some characters who played a big role in Harry’s earlier adventures come back to play large roles in this final installment. Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith, “Becoming Jane”) has always been a defender of Harry.  It’s good to see her come on strong as a defender of Hogwarts. Professor Severus Snape (Alan Rickman, “Die Hard”) has always held a mysterious role in Harry’s fate, having worked for both the good Order of the Phoenix and the evil Death Eaters. His role in Harry’s ultimate fate is satisfying without succumbing to sentimentality. Perhaps my favorite minor character, the accident-prone Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis), makes the biggest vie for unsung hero status in this final chapter. He gets together with my other favorite minor character, Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch).

Along with the chance to say goodbye to old friends, this final chapter also satisfies by doing a great job revisiting the plots of the previous films. All the previous adventures tie in to this one in some way or another. The basilisk from “Chamber of Secrets” has a role to play despite the fact that it remains a skeleton in the bowels of Hogwarts. Dumbledore’s pensive bowl, which shows memories stored in people’s tears and first appeared in “Goblet of Fire”, reveals important secrets about Harry’s protectors through the years. And the staging of Dubledore’s death in “The Half-Blood Prince” plays an important role in the resolution of everything here.

Before seeing the final installment myself, I’d heard that it was both satisfying and sad. I agree with the former, but not the latter. I suppose it’s sad to think that we won’t have a chance to return to this world we’ve come to love except by popping one of it’s eight episodes into our DVD players whenever we want, but, to call the movie itself sad, is a bit misleading. Certainly there are some sad elements, but satisfaction is a better description of the overall feeling this last film in the series imparts.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Aug. 5-11

Western of the Week

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) ****
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Philip Kaufman, Sonia Chernus, Forrest Carter (book “Gone to Texas”)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, Bill McKinney, John Vernon, Sam Bottoms, Sondra Locke, Paula Trueman, Geraldine Keams, Woodrow Parfrey

“The Outlaw Josey Wales” has long been the official film of the Wells clan. Well, for the men anyway. This was the film that, no matter what our differences, bonded my brother, my father, and me together. It was the first DVD I ever pre-ordered. It’s the western I judge all other westerns against. I even had the name Josey on all of my kids’ name lists before they were born, so we could have a kid names ‘Josey Wells’. Isn’t that awesome? My wife feared the name would predetermine the child to be an outlaw. Pfffst!

Here’s the really funny thing. Up until this screening, I never really saw it as a four star movie. I figured I was biased toward it. I thought some of the acting might’ve been stiff. I thought the blood was too fake. I mean it really couldn’t have been as great as the regard in which my family held it, could it? Well, it turns out that it is.

This is a truly great western. It doesn’t care that it teeters on the edge of episodic rambling. In doing so, it gives us one of the greatest streams of characters the genre has ever witnessed. From Sam Bottoms’ greenhorn rebel, to Chief Dan George’s comedic oddball Indian chief; from the trappers doing dark dealings in the back rooms of trading posts, to the wide-eyed doe Sandra Locke; from the level headed warrior chief who understands the state of the world better than the U.S. government, to the sympathetic Judas played by John Vernon; this is one of the greatest cast of characters to populate just about any genre.

Plus, this is one of the most quotable westerns ever made.

“Are you gonna pull those pistols or whistle Dixie?”

Josie: “When I get to likin’ someone, they ain’t around long.”
Lone Waite: “I notice when you get to dislikin’ someone they ain’t around long either.”

“I didn't surrender, but they took my horse and made him surrender. They have him pulling a wagon up in Kansas I bet.”

“Buzzards gotta eat, same as birds.”

“I always heard there were three kinds of suns in Kansas, sunshine, sunflowers, and sons-of-bitches.”

“Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy.”

The Adjustment Bureau (2011) **½
Director: George Nolfi
Writers: George Nolfi, Philip K. Dick (short story “Adjustment Team”)
Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Anthony Mackie, John Slattery, Michael Kelly, Terence Stamp

“The Adjustment Bureau” is a well-made thriller. In terms of providing an entertainment with some twists and turns, it succeeds. But as a science fiction exercise, it feels somewhat flat. I like the ideas in Philip K. Dick’s stories. He’s provided some of the best material to be transformed into celluloid magic. I fear the short story status of his original material kind of shows through here, though.

I don’t know if the elements I had problems with came from the source material or were inserted by the screenwriters to stretch it into feature-length. The filmmakers introduce an idea that this adjustment bureau might have something to do with our notions of celestial beings. It never really develops this idea, though. If you’re going to make religious allegory a part of your premise, then it seems to me some actual Biblical referencing should be present. Here God and angels are just used as a parallel explanation of just what is going on in the plot. There is no commentary made on religion or our reliance on it or how it relates to the world we live in today. These are the edicts of science fiction that just aren’t utilized here.

I also felt the resolution didn’t quite mesh with the movie’s notions on fate vs. free will. The road to these points is exciting and even intriguing, but if that’s all this movie is trying to accomplish it might as well have been another Jason Bourne movie. Science fiction requires a little more.

Cedar Rapids (2011) ***
Director: Miguel Arteta
Writer: Phil Johnston
Starring: Ed Helms, John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Stephen Root, Kurtwood Smith, Alia Shawkat, Rob Corddry, Mike O’Malley, Sigourney Weaver

“Cedar Rapids” is a surprisingly endearing movie about an endearing and sheltered man played by the endearing Ed Helms. That is not to say endearing in the sense that it’s for kids as it is a decidedly adult comedy that will only play well to people who don’t have a problem with foul language, adultery, and heavy drug use.

Helms plays an insurance salesman who leaves his small town for the first time to attend the regional conference in Cedar Rapids. There he meets a character played by John C. Reilly like a slightly grown up version of his “Step Brothers” character. Only slightly more grown up.

Needless to say Helms has his own mid-life coming of age event while at the conference. We are treated to a fairly standard formula in a very charming and humorous way. This won’t be one of the most memorable movies you’ve ever seen, but it will provide a nice night of comedy in a more adult manner than many other films of similar nature.

Fire in the Sky (1993) ***
Director: Robert Lieberman
Writers: Tracy Tormé, Travis Walton (book)
Starring: Robert Patrick, D.B. Sweeney, Craig Sheffer, James Garner, Peter Berg, Henry Thomas, Bradley Gregg, Noble Willingham, Kathleen Wilhoite

Since its release in 1993, I’ve always heard good things about the alien abduction movie “Fire in the Sky” from the few people who’ve seen it. Most of what I had seen of the movie up to this point involved a scene when the abducted man awakens inside the alien spacecraft, but this story isn’t really about the abduction so much as it is about the people who weren’t abducted and the hardships they face from their implausible story about witnessing their friend’s abduction.

Allegedly based on true events, the film doesn’t dawdle in the fantasy elements more commonly associated with alien conspiracy plots. It looks hard at the implications for a few blue-collar people claiming to theirs piers that they’ve had an alien encounter. Robert Patrick plays the central character, D.B. Sweeney the abductee. Both actors bring real fears and confused impulses to the roles that reflect a realistic view of what such an experience would bring.

The movie is far from perfect. An overdramatized opening is obviously designed to pull the audience’s interest in with some fabricated action. Also James Garner’s character’s interest in the case seems to run longer than a man of his nature would remain interested. Perhaps they felt they needed the threat of some sort of villain, but I’m guessing the real law enforcement officer did not remain involved in the case after the missing man was found.

Stake Land (2011) ***
Director: Jim Mickle
Writers: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle,
Starring: Conner Paolo, Nick Damici, Michael Cheveris, Kelly McGillis, Danielle Harris, Sean Nelson

“Stake Land” is yet another vampire/zombie movie. I suppose it’s really a zombie movie, although they refer to the undead creatures here as vampires. They have fangs and must be killed with a steak to the heart or the back of the head. Other than those details everything about these things smells of zombies.

It’s actually a pretty good piece of independent filmmaking. It shows us a gritty dystopian world that reminded me a good deal of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. It doesn’t have much good to say about religion, although the “vampires” themselves aren’t given much religious allegory. More dangerous than the vampires in many ways are the religious cults that have sprouted out of this human plague.

Although the movie is quite gory, it does a good job focusing more on the characters than on the action and mythology of how these vampire/zombies work. The story starts out with the vampire hunter Mister and a boy he saves. As these two search for a safe haven from the vampires they pick up other people along the way and form a patchwork family.

The movie never really gets close to any sort of greatness because it doesn’t place its aims so high. It’s content to be a B-grade horror flick that only scratches at the surface of commentary and allegory. If you’re a horror buff, you’ll quite enjoy this one. If you’re looking for more than just horror, it unfortunately falls squarely in a subgenre that has just been done to death lately. It never makes the effort to transcend that subgenre.

On a side note: Have you ever wondered what happened to “Witness” and “Top Gun” female star Kelly McGillis? She was one of those short-lived 80’s starlets, whose star burned bright for a few really big hits of the decade and then disappeared into television obscurity in the 90s. Well, she’s still out there earning a buck as an actor. In fact she’s right here in “Stake Land” in the role of Sister (as in nun). But, if you remember her as the smoldering evaluation officer of Tom Cruise in “Top Gun”, you won’t recognize her here. She’s one of those rare cases among actors who have actually allowed herself to age over the years.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: July 22-Aug. 4

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) ***
Director: Brad Furman
Writers: John Romano, Michael Connelly (novel)
Starring: Matthew McConaughy, Ryan Phillippe, Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, Josh Lucas, John Leguizamo, Michael Peña, Bob Gunton, Frances Fisher, Bryan Cranston, Trace Adkins, Laurence Mason, Margarita Levieva, Pell James, Shea Whigham, Katherine Moennig, Michael Paré, Michaela Conlin

I think it’s easy to forget how the justice system is supposed to work when all your exposure to it comes from movies and television. In most legal procedurals the audience knows who the guilty party is and the entertainment comes from discovering how and why. We see the guilty and eventually were see them punished (or rarely, they get away with it). In this set up, it’s all about the guilty, sometimes about the innocent, but not really about the relationship of the law to the two. That relationship is really the most important part of how our legal system works.

“The Lincoln Lawyer” is yet another courtroom procedural that places most of its entertainment within the elements that reveal why and how the known guilty party did the crime and (almost) got away with it, but by making its hero a lawyer who makes his living off defending who most decent people would consider people with questionable morality, it also shows us the importance of protecting everyone’s rights. It takes us through the service entrance rather than the front door to get there, and that is one of its most unique and interesting aspects.

Even the more traditional elements of “The Lincoln Lawyer” are very well done. The movie is a vehicle reminding us that Matthew McConaughy isn’t just a pretty hick face, but actually reserves some acting talent for the right role. An astounding supporting cast of talents that remain supporting surrounds him here, never threatening to steal the show. The story doesn’t bother with trying to hide whether his client, played by Ryan Phillippe, is guilty of the murder for which he’s accused. However, I did find it hard to believe that McConaughy’s defense attorney really believed at any point Phillippe wasn’t guilty. Since the movie doesn’t meander at revealing the truth of that question, it never really becomes too much of a plausibility issue.

As legal thrillers go, “The Lincoln Lawyer” shouldn’t disappoint many, and it may actually remind us that there’s a reason you have the legal right to representation no matter how low you might run to scrounge your life. If something is done, it ought to be done right, especially the proof of guilt.

Off and Running (2010) ***
Director: Nicole Opper
Writer: Avery Klein-Cloud
Featuring: Avery Klein-Cloud, Tova Klein, Travis Cloud, Rafi Klein-Cloud, Zay-Zay Klein-Cloud

Having just adopted a child from another culture, I may be more invested in the story of an adoptee’s struggle to define herself than some. I found the story of Avery Klein-Cloud, a black girl adopted by lesbian Jewish mothers, incredibly fascinating. Avery also has two adopted brothers. Rafi is Dominican and older, Zay-Zay, Korean and younger. Avery decides to contact her birth mother. This eventually sends her life into turmoil and threatens to break the once happy multi-cultured family apart.

Nicole Opper’s documentary will certainly interest anyone who has blessed their own family with multi-culturalism through adoption, but it’s a compelling enough story to work on anybody. The details of this family’s life style make it thought provoking. Just how do we define who we are? There are so many things we take for granted simply because they are staples of the environment in which we’re raised. But to find elements about yourself that seem to fit somewhere else, who wouldn’t get confused by how to incorporate this knowledge into what had once seemed second nature?

I did have some problems with the construction of Opper’s documentary. There are many elements of Avery’s life that aren’t explored as fully as they should be. We hear a great deal about family arguments, but we never see any. And, there are few occasions where Opper fills in the gaps with brief title cards when further explanation would illuminate important facets of how Avery gets from point A to point B. But, there’s an energy to the film fueled by the love experienced by this wonderful family that makes technical details carry little weight in the overall enjoyment of learning Avery’s story.

Iron Man 2 (2010) ***
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: Justin Theroux
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scartlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson, John Slattery, Gary Shandling

I might never have watched “Iron Man 2” a second time were it not so easy to access on a whim via Netflix Instant. I originally liked the movie, but found it a disappointment compared to the first “Iron Man”. I liked it better the second time. It’s a flashy, good-looking action flick with a good flare for comedic quips, thanks to screenwriter Justin Theroux. I noticed those quips were missing in director Jon Favreau’s most recent and much more disappointing movie “Cowboys & Aliens”. With six screenwriters, that one certainly could’ve used some streamlining along with heavy dose of Theroux’s wit.

Read my original review of “Iron Man 2” here.

Read my feature-length review of “Cowboys & Aliens” here.

Conviction (2010) **
Director: Tony Goldwyn
Writer: Pamela Gray
Starring: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Peter Gallagher, Juliette Lewis, Clea DuVall, Ari Graynor

For all of the conviction in “Conviction”, it seems to be missing something. It’s based on the true story of a Massachusetts woman who went to law school after her brother was wrongfully convicted of murder so she could get him out. Hillary Swank and Sam Rockwell turn in excellent performances as the siblings. Although their story is told with some depth, it drags.

The events are presented in a very episodic manner. This happened. Then this. Then this. There is very little emotional through line. Perhaps this is because the brother and sister are the only two characters we really get to know. All we get throughout the whole movie is their relationship. Both were married before the conviction. Both had children with their spouses. Both marriages failed. Little is given about those relationships. We know how much they love each other. Typically, we are told her devotion to his case made her inaccessible to her family, but we aren’t shown any of this beyond a missed fishing trip.

I’d like to learn more about these two people, but I already know enough about how devoted they are to each other.

Source Code (2011) ***½
Director: Duncan Jones
Writer: Ben Ripley
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Fermiga, Jeffrey Wright

“Source Code” is a classic sci-fi tale. A soldier wakes up on a train. He doesn’t know the woman opposite him, but she seems to know him. The last thing he remembers is being in combat. He tries to figure out where he is, a train bound for Chicago. He shouldn’t even be stateside. He tries to explain to the woman that he’s not who she thinks he is. The train blows up.

Short movie, huh? Oh, that’s not all. Upon the explosion, the soldier finds himself in a new environment. It seems military, but he still has no recollection of it. A female officer tries to get information from him about the train. She explains that he’s in a program that allows him to relive 8 minutes of the life of one of the passengers on a train that exploded earlier that morning. They want him to gather information from the train that might reveal who the bomber was and where he might strike again.

But, like all great sci-fi, this movie isn’t about the plot. The plot is just a mechanism to explore notions of morality and basic necessities of the human existence. What the plot allows for in this particular science fiction set up is non-stop adrenaline as the soldier must return repeatedly to a scenario where he knows he has a very limited amount of time and the bomb under the table will go off no matter what he does. Or will it? Oh, that final question is a sly one that informs more than just the action of the story, but a good deal of its morality as well.

“Source Code” is not a perfect sci-fi. It’s one that will begin to crumble if you pick at it too much. It’s so thrilling and so easy to get caught up in that those blemishes won’t really become apparent until it’s over.

Western of the Week

Terror in a Texas Town (1958) **
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Writer: Ben Perry
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Ned Young, Sebastian Cabot, Carol Kelly, Eugene Martin, Victor Millan

There’s not much that the B-western “Terror in a Texas Town” has that hasn’t been seen in other better westerns, but it does have one of the most unique heroes I’ve seen in one. Much of the hero’s uniqueness is due to the man who plays him, the great character actor Sterling Hayden.

Hayden is most well known as the Army colonel in “Dr. Strangelove” with a great fear of the Russian’s desire for his “precious bodily fluids.” Here, Hayden portrays that stranger in the western town who has the gumption to stand up against the villains for what’s right. In this case, a man named Klein is buying or bullying people off their land because he knows what they don’t, that there’s oil in them there hills.

The first victim of violence is the father of Hayden’s Swede. Hayden comes to claim his father’s land as his own. He plays the role with a thick Swedish accent, which is a bit off putting in a western, but probably represents a more accurate view of how new citizens tried to find their American dreams in the Western Territories. The accent gives a false sense that Hayden is some foreign fool, when in fact he’s quite intelligent. He’s aware of the false impression he gives to others and uses it to assess his situation upon his arrival.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to Hayden’s wonderful character, depending far too often upon established clichés of the genre and falling into its own low budget failings. The score is clunky and, due to its minimalist approach, fails to find the right emotional queues for the action depicted.